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Live Review

Harumo Imai Band at Keystone Club

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Harumo Imai Band
Keystone Club
Tokyo, Japan
December 19, 2021

The Harumo Imai Band energized the Keystone Club in Tokyo, Japan, before a lively sold-out audience. The band played two electrifying sets of music ranging from jazz, soul, R&B to rap and hip hop. The stellar band, led by the exceptionally talented saxophonist, composer, arranger, and vocalist Harumo Imai, presented a broad sonic palette of musical choices, creating a flow that blended seamlessly from one genre to the next, building bridges, crossing musical borders.

Imai began playing the Yamaha Electone organ as a precocious three-year-old, then at 13, switched to the saxophone. At 18, she embarked on a solo journey from her hometown of Shiga to Tokyo to further her career. In 2016, Imai traveled to the United States to study at VIXCAMPS (bassist Victor Wooten's music camp), under the tutelage of renowned saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Jeff Coffin. One of her early breaks as a professional musician came when Wooten invited her to join him as a guest saxophonist while he toured Japan in 2019. In addition to fronting her band, she frequently performs as a guest with Tokyo Groove Jyoshi, bassist Juna Serita, the group Black Elegance and jazz pianist Tsuyoshi Yamamoto.

On this night, the first set began with an original composition penned by Imai, titled "Nataraja/Rebel Weed." This piece can be heard (in a contemporary jazz setting) on the Japanese-based Future Jazz Quartet's debut recording, Flying Humanoid (Self Produced, 2020). Imai worked a rap into the tune for her concert, showcasing her arranging skills before leading the band into the essence of the composition. Her playing, personal and captivating, notched up another level as she unleashed a gritty yet eloquent and warm solo, full of confidence and attitude, reaching a crescendo before returning to the chorus. Her improvisatory skills were notable, always in sync with the vibe in the room, created in no small part by her skill in drawing the audience in, making them feel as if they, too, had a role to play in the music. Bassist Naoki Isobe added a killing bass solo, one of several he performed throughout the concert.

The band followed up with "Mama's Boy," an instrumental piece driven by rock-solid bass and drums, played ably by Isobe and time-keeper Akira Kudo, creating the percussive rhythm that percolated below Imai's restrained yet jazzy-rock-funk playing. As the simmering behind her continued, augmented by the two complimentary keyboardists, Philip Woo and Tony Suggs, her solo reached boiling point before she released the energy allowing the band to take the song to the finish line.

"Paradise," another original Imai composition, featured jazzy, soulful singing by the talented and engaging vocalists Rita Nishikawa and Glynis Martin; sandwiched in between was a tender jazz-inflected solo by Imai, which built to a mid-tempo exploration of the tune's possibilities.

As the first set concluded, rapper Iamciti joined the band as a special guest on stage for "Dolce Vita," a rap/hip-hop song that featured the guest rapper and Imai. She opened the singing portion of the piece before giving way to Iamciti, followed by some fine soloing from Imai and Isobe.

The second set began (and ended) with danceable funk and soul, serving as bookends to fiery contemporary jazz/funk. The final song of the night was another original, "Turn it Up," an uplifting crowd-pleaser once again featuring an electrifying Isobe solo, Kudo's edgy, spirited drumming, and, of course, Imai's inspired soloing, which took the energy in the room to yet another level. The audience would not allow the band to exit without an encore, rewarding it with a standing ovation. The band did not disappoint and responded by returning to play a funky rendition of "Thank You," an old Sly and the Family Stone ditty, emphasizing the line "I want to thank you for letting me be myself." The crowd responded with another standing ovation, which the band had certainly earned.

It has been said that art reflects the spirit. Imai's non-negotiable passion permeates her inner being. Her saxophone is the embodiment of this emotion, channeling it into the deep tones of her music. She is forging her path forward.

Harumo Imai, tenor saxophone and vocals Philip Woo, keyboards Tony Suggs, piano and keyboards Naoki Isobe, bass Akira Kudo, drums Rita Nishikawa, vocals Glynis Martin, vocals Iamciti, vocals (On Dolce Vita)

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